The city council is holding back three new judicial appointments made by mayor Jose “Joey” Torres. Council president Julio Tavarez, 5th Ward, called the appointments rushed and urged council members to thoroughly vet the judges before confirming them to three-year terms in the city’s municipal court.
Tavarez said during the last regular meeting the mayor submitted the appointments at 1 p.m. during the day of the regular meeting giving council members little time to exercise review over the appointments.
Torres wants to appoint three new judges and reappoint two longtime judges. Haledon municipal prosecutor Abdelmageid “John” Abdelhadi, Hackensack municipal prosecutor Giuseppe Randazzao, and Cecilia Guzman, who is partner at a law firm in Totowa, are the new appointment.
Municipal court judges Joaquin Calcines and Gerald Keegan have been reappointed by the mayor awaiting confirmation from the council.
During that July 29th, 2014 meeting, Tavarez sent the confirmations back the council’s committee. During last Tuesday’s workshop session, Tavarez, seeing none of the judges were present in the council chamber, wanted to move the confirmations to the August 29th, 2014 meeting of the council.
“Councilman, this is right now the second delay,” said business administrator Nellie Pou. “Now you’re talking about the month of September.”
“This is not a second delay, let me make that clear,” responded Tavarez. The first week the administration submitted the names for approval it submitted in a manner that was “completely irresponsible,” said Tavarez.
If the confirmations are moved to the last meeting of August the council does not get to vote on the item until the next regular meeting which is in September.
Tavarez said council members are not comfortable rushing into make appointments without having had a chance to interview the new judges.
“I want to make sure every council member voting for these judges understands that they are voting for these judges and appointing them; and they’re going to be dealing with our constituents on a daily basis,” said Tavarez.
The council president said complaints about judges and poor treatment of residents at the municipal court are common. “I get a lot of complaints,” said Tavarez.”If we appoint a judge, let’s be responsible for that judge, that’s all I’m saying.”
As if to suggest confirmation hearing on the judges are unnecessary, law department director Domenick Stampone said, “It is a unique situation that the legislative body has members of the judicial branch before it and that this body needs to respect the separation of powers.”
It’s unclear what is unique with the situation considering in state and federal levels – municipal level is modeled on the latter — it is common for a judge to appear before the legislative branch to answer questions from elected officials before being confirmed.
Stampone said if the council opts to interview the appointees, questions should be limited to professional qualifications of the judges.
“You have to walk a very fine line regarding the questions you ask the judicial branch,” added Kenneth Morris, council at-large. “Some of them are re-appointments and they have on going cases.”
Tavarez did not buy Stampone’s impingement of separation of powers. “We’re not going to vote until council members feel comfortable making a decision,” said Tavarez. “I never liked making a decision to vote on something I’ve never discussed.”
“The court is in desperate need,” implored Stampone. “We’re already at a 50-percent below our full contingent of judges.”
Stampone said at least one of the judges is scheduled to take vacation in August which will further reduce the number of judges on the bench.
The council president said he would allow the two reappointment to be voted on during the next regular meeting, but the new appointments would not be on the agenda until the appointees are interviewed in the next workshop meeting.
“He cannot stonewall something from going on the agenda because he doesn’t want it,” said Torres when asked for his reaction. “He’s a little bit over his head. Unfortunately, councilman Tavarez doesn’t understand parliamentary procedures nor government.” said Torres. “It just re-affirms that he was a bad choice to be council president from the beginning.”
The council has only one regular meeting in August which means if the administration is unable to persuade the council into confirming the judges during the next regular meeting it must wait until September.
Stampone offered to connect the judges to council members interested in speaking to them. Domingo “Alex” Mendez, councilman at-large, said it is important for him to speak to the judges before casting his vote.
Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, 2nd Ward, also opted to meet the three new appointees privately. Despite the concession from the administration, Tavarez refused to include the confirmations in the next regular meeting agenda.
“Two [will be] in the regular agenda, the other three will be voted onto the agenda,” said Tavarez. For an item to be added onto the agenda during a regular meeting the council has to unanimously approve the insertion, said Morris.
Tavarez said if council members are comfortable after the private meetings they can place the item on the agenda during the regular meeting.
“It’s not his [Tavarez's] choice to pick the judges, it is my choice to pick judges,” said Torres. “I do the nominations. If he doesn’t like the judge, vote no. It’s simple as that. He cannot stall them from going up for vote.”